In the Winter of our Discontent, Hope Springs

We are all suffering through the long slog that is the three months of February. As we continue to navigate frozen, constricted streets, this month offers us the opportunity to comment on St. Paul’s 90% draft plan of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, where public comments will be accepted on the Community Engagement website through February 28.

The winter’s accumulated snow is now well-mixed with soot and salt, melted and refrozen into street glaciers that motorists, bus commuters and cyclists all have to contend with. People on cars and bikes feel the pinch between the multi-layered ice sheets on side streets and the newly formed potholes that recently emerged in the midwinter’s thaw. Corrosion is taking its toll on the family wagon, and rust is liberally sprayed along one side of my bike’s rear wheel, because I’ve been too lazy to wipe down my chain after every ride. And I can only imagine the injuries sustained by all the folk who have been scaling curb berms and penguin-shuffling their way to the bus stop. According to noted climatologist Punxsutawney Phil, we are facing another six weeks of winter. (I know; that’s old news, it’s fewer now. Or is it?) That’s hardly news to all of us living on the 45th parallel. Spring is a long way off.

The road and trail conditions have forced many of us to change our commuting patterns. For cyclists, painted bike lanes have effectively disappeared, as Dan Marshall recently observed. Side streets, as I’ve noted, are thick with bumpy, lumpy ice sheets. The safest place to be is in the traffic lane of arterial roads, where there is nothing to contend with other than the occasional pothole and thin veneer of road salt. That pushes cyclists (and walkers) into potential conflict with motorists, who have to either match their speed with cyclists or else risk passing in the opposing lane of traffic.

But there are also the occasional off-street bike paths, such as the one I ride on along Como Avenue. Those are well maintained. There are certainly patches of ice, but they tend not to have the kind of bumpy, greasy sheen we see along the on-street bike lanes. Places where separated bike lanes are available are where cyclists are arguably the safest. 

A street with two lanes of traffic, two lanes of parking and two bike lanes. The markings for the bike lanes are completely covered by a layer of ice.
Can you spot the bike path here on Summit Avenue? Photo by the author.
A bike path along another street is clear of ice.
The separated bike path along Como Avenue west of Hamline is maintained in winter.

As if in answer to our midwinter woes, news has broken that St. Paul’s Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan is 90% complete. Just as many people start poring over seed catalogs and camping opportunities, it’s nice to imagine what our miserable February commutes might one day look like. I know, this particular plan is about a single road, a mere 5-mile stretch through the middle of town. But Summit Avenue holds a psychic significance to St. Paulites. It links three college campuses, several commercial corridors, many houses of worship, the St. Paul Cathedral, as well as the Governor’s mansion, the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul. It also boasts the climactic finish to the Twin Cities marathon, and oh, by the way, it’s among the first on-street bike paths ever to be built, er, painted. Summit Avenue draws thousands of people to it and through it. What happens here will impact the bike commuter experience for future projects.

The draft plan has garnered much coverage in the local press, including the Star Tribune, Saint Paul Pioneer Press and the My Villager newspaper that serves the Highland Park, Mac-Groveland and Merriam Park neighborhoods. Max Singer’s excellent summary in delves into aspects I hadn’t considered, including demographic shifts and details like trash collection. If you have been following the story, you might know it for the objections raised by an organized group of worried neighbors. The plan’s purpose and potential benefits get swallowed up in the back and forth about how many trees stand to be damaged or cut down, or about the impacts on driveways and parking.

What gets buried in these conflicts is how the proposed separated bike lanes fit into the city’s wider comprehensive bike plan, the demographics of people whom the improvements hope to attract and the user experience that residents have indicated are lacking in the current configuration.

A Broader Vision

“What’s wrong with the path as it is? I ride it all the time, and I think it’s just fine.”

That common refrain from opponents raises the valid question: “Is it broke? Why fix it?” I will get to the elevated, separated bike lane in a moment, but I think it’s important to point out St. Paul’s efforts to address demographic shifts and changes in behavior patterns as a part of its long-term vision for Our Fair City.

A Saint Paul Bicycle Plan was adopted in 2015 and updated two years later, as an addendum to the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. It sets out to “increase the number of bicycle trips throughout the city” and to “reduce the number or frequency of trips by automobile” (page 2). It projects population growth (an additional 45,000 people by 2030), more density and increased pressure on roadways. Still, fewer people are driving (6% drop since 2000), and more people are biking (13% increase in the same time period). We are focused more and more on climate change and decarbonization.

St. Paul also has a Climate Action and Resilience Plan. Among other goals, St. Paul will “increase efforts to promote the use of low-carbon mobility options and fill in critical gaps in biking and walking infrastructure.” Decreasing carbon emissions is a major objective in every aspect of public life. Replacing car trips with bike use is one way that many of us are choosing to go about that.

A Wider Net

Of course, not all of us are ready to leave the car in the driveway as we go about our business. According to a widely cited study from 2012 (referenced on page 20 of the city’s Bicycle Plan), about 30% of us are quite comfortable driving, and are unlikely to ever consider hopping on a bike. Only up to 12 percent of people are either fearless, daredevil cyclists who ride under any circumstance or at least are confident riding on designated bikeways and shoulders. The rest of us, about 60%, like the idea of cycling, but we’re intimidated by the risks of riding close to cars, or some other safety hazard.

If we hope to convince a wider group of people to use their bicycles more, we have to make the experience more comfortable for the “interested but concerned” group. So put yourself in that person’s shoes and picture yourself on the little bike icon in this series of photographs, captured from the video summary of the trail plan.

A collage. Image 1: the bicycle is sandwiched between two large trucks. Image 2: the bicycle is riding past a parked car on an icy bike lane. Image 3: the bicycle is put at risk of collision when a parked car opens its doors.
Overlooking the fact that most of us would rarely ride perpendicular to the direction of traffic, these are a few situations that may cause heart palpitations for many riders.

Usage: Recreation vs. Utility

Summit Avenue is a beautiful ride, from end to end, no matter how you make the trip. It has always drawn recreational use. But we don’t use it just for weekend sightseeing or exercise. We know this because of data collection tools such as the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s report Minnesota’s Walking and Bicycling, which has been tracking vehicle use for years. We know that Summit sees the second or third-highest volume of bicycle traffic in Minnesota. In the most recently available data, which covers the pre-COVID years of 2014 to 2019, daily bike use ranges from nearly 300 in the winter to over 700 the rest of the year (page 23). And we know that weekday peaks in bike use coincide with morning and afternoon rush hour. Clearly, cyclists use Summit not only for recreation, but for utility.

A line graph showing several roads throughout the Twin Cities and the percentage of bicycle traffic (on the Y axis) they receive per hour (on the X axis). Summit Avenue has a peak at each of the rush hour times, and is flat throughout the rest of the day. Usage plummets during the night.
Bicycle use on Summit is consistent with commuting and other forms of utility transportation. from Mn Walking and Bicycling report, p. 13

The variety of vehicles available on the market account for some of the change in use. Commuters worried about biking to work and arriving sweaty and exhausted now have options for a powered ride. It’s much easier to bike home from Kowalski’s with a week’s worth of groceries in a cargo bike. And errands that used to demand a minivan or an SUV don’t seem so impossible on a bike anymore. We are able to travel farther and get more done without having to depend on a car.

A cargo bike carrying two children and an adult.
“You can’t pick up the kids from daycare on a bike, can you?” from the Comprehensive Bike Plan, p. 23

Separated Bike Lanes Are Right for Summit

The on-street bikeway no longer works for the way we use Summit Avenue. I’ve offered one reason why already: it’s useless for at least four months out of the year. Snowplows do their best to move snow and ice off the road surface, but even when parked cars aren’t in the way, car tires inevitably track snow and slush back across the bike lane as they move in and out of the parking lane.

The video still I shared earlier suggests another reason: No one enjoys being sandwiched between moving cars and potentially swinging car doors. The city said as much in a recent survey of St. Paul residents. When asked, “What would make you bike more in St. Paul?” the top response was “more separated bikeways.” Farther down, respondents added, “better snow clearing.”

A table showing responses to the question. The most frequent is "more separated bikeways."
Results from the 2021 Engagement Survey suggest ways to attract more riders from the “interested but concerned group.” p. 11

Section 2 of the 90% draft plan includes comments from the 60% version from November. Again, when asked what the most important elements were, at the top of the list were trees and separated bike lanes.

A graph showing responses to the public engagement survey. The two most popular responses are "mature tree canopy and shade" and "separation of uses for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists."

This is what we want. It’s what would make more of us more comfortable in giving the bike a try. But if we build it, will they come? Are we sure that building new bike infrastructure translates to increased bike use? Yeah, pretty sure.

Perhaps the most straightforward reason to upgrade Summit’s bike lane from the current in-street configuration to a separated bike lane is that it is most appropriate for the amount of vehicle traffic the street sees every day, according to industry best practices.

A table recommending bike facilities for different traffic volumes. As a roadway with greater than 6,500 vehicles per day, the Minnesota Department of Transportation recommends "separated bike lane or sidepath."
Summit Avenue is too busy to continue using an in-street bike lane. 90% draft plan, p. 118

It’s About People. It’s About Us.

Things are looking up. Our rodent climatologist notwithstanding, spring is coming. We know that it’s bound to bring a slushy snowstorm or three, and at least one more cold snap. But the light is returning, Hallelujah! In another week or two, I may not need the headlamp to find my way home. In a month, maybe I can switch out the studded tires. Lord willing, stepping onto the bus won’t require launching over a snowbank to get there. And let’s hope we won’t need new shocks and struts for the family wagon.

Sometime in April, we will be watching and waiting, as St. Paul Parks and Recreation delivers its baby to the City Council for consideration. There will be sturm und drang. But it will be OK. I have faith that with time, and more light, it will become clearer that whatever shape this project takes, it will ultimately be about people. Cyclists, yes. But also people who use all manner of mobility machines: electric scooters, electric wheelchairs, personal mobility scooters, longboards and one-wheels. The other night I was coming home from work, when I encountered a rider on an electric unicycle. That thing was fast! All of us are choosing to get around in different ways than what used to be the “default.” I hope it points the way to how more of us will choose to live: more sustainably, and happier.

Ed Steinhauer

About Ed Steinhauer

Ed Steinhauer is a teacher and artist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.